‘Winning IGOTY23 validates the hard work that our team has been doing’

Brookdale Treeland Nurseries swept the board at AIPH International Grower of the Year 2023 at IPM Essen. The Canadian team won the overall IGOTY Gold Rose, Gold for Finished Trees and Plants and Bronze for Sustainability. FCI caught up with CEO Jeff Olsen to discover the secret to his company’s success.

The Jury members for AIPH International Grower of the Year were unanimous in summing up their decision to choose Canadian entry Brookdale Treeland Nurseries as the IGOTY 2023 winner. They said: “BTN stands out as a business focused on the future; with a wide assortment and a flow of new varieties, it brings something new to the industry all the time. Its dynamic approach has enabled it to develop new products and markets and is well-founded to lead the industry in the years ahead.”

Brookdale Treeland Nurseries Limited was established in 1977 and is one of Canada’s largest and most respected growers of trees, shrubs, and garden plants. It has four farms in Ontario and one in British Columbia, collectively making up a land base of more than 800 acres. As everyone knows, behind every successful business is a good leader, FCI went straight to the top to talk to the CEO, Jeff Olsen.

The breathtaking view of Brookdale Treeland Nurseries’ farm in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.

The breathtaking view of Brookdale Treeland Nurseries’ farm in Chilliwack, British Columbia. It opened in the Spring of 2010 with 40 acres of prime valley farmland. This farm produces a variety of West Coast evergreens for the company’s trading partners.

FloraCulture International: You are crowned with AIPH International Grower of the Year 2023; what does this mean for you personally and the Brookdale Treeland Nurseries team?

Jeff Olsen: “Personally, this is a highlight of my career and makes me so proud to be named IGOTY 2023 among such a prestigious group of companies. For BTN, this award validates the hard work that our team has been doing and motivates them to push further.”

What ignited the spark to enter the IGOTY Awards – and would you recommend others to go through the gruelling jury process?

“We set a goal to win this award as a part of our Strategic Planning Process, as we knew how the recognition would be great for our business. I sit on many industry boards and always recommend applying to my peers.”

What do you feel is the biggest strength of Brookdale Treeland Nurseries right now?

“Our goal is to recruit and retain the best talent in the industry, and we believe that we are accomplishing this. We focus on Innovation, Partnership, Professionalism and Responsibility.”

Making life beautiful’ is your motto. Can you provide product volumes per year, for your programmes, in the following categories: Flowering Shrubs, Evergreens, Broadleaf Evergreens, Holiday Greens, Vines, Perennials, Trees, Small Fruits and Tropicals?

“Per Year, we sell 250,000 flowering shrubs, 225,000 evergreens, 150,000 broadleaf evergreens, 1,100,000 holiday greens, 75,000 climbing vines, 2,000,000 perennials, 50,000 trees, 75,000 small fruits, and 250,000 tropicals.”

Brookdale Treeland Nurseries won Gold at IGOTY23 for Finished Plants & Trees – can you tell us what product from your portfolio is the most in-demand for (gardens) retailers in Canada and USA?

“Our private label perennials, holiday greenery and some of our newest and most innovative creations are all in high demand from garden retailers.”

Does your marketing team create the trends? What has been the biggest success to date?

“Yes – our marketing team and product development group bring trends to the marketplace. Sometimes, we invent the idea or other times; we search the globe for cool and unique items that we think will work in the North American marketplace. Currently, our biggest success is a product called “Braided Willow”, which we hold the North American rights to and was developed by our partners in Denmark.”

Who are your main retail brands in Canada and the United States?

“Proven Winners, Knock Out Rose & Raymond Evison Clematis.”

BTN’s beautiful farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

BTN’s beautiful farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. These locations include one of North America’s largest perennial growers serving Canada, the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic regions. BTN produces over 1,500 perennial varieties at its Niagara Farms.

I am keen to know about the logistics of this operation – you produce from five farms with a combined area of 800 acres – what’s the journey look like before the products hit the stores?

“We try to build programs and ship direct from our farms to stores so the product is the freshest possible upon arrival. For smaller shipments, we use a cross-dock facility at our main location to consolidate and reship.”

You also supply contractors landscaping the nation’s public spaces and golf courses –how is the production ratio split between supplying to landscapers versus retail?

“Ninety per cent of our business is sold to retailers while 10 per cent is sold to these customer groups. That has been a tremendous shift over the past 20 years when landscape accounted for 90 per cent of our business. We do not supply internationally.”

What has been the secret to your thriving supplier base – do your values, portfolio, or competitive prices attract them?

“We believe that our suppliers want to do business with us because we are tough but fair and can provide significant purchase volumes for them.”

What is your view of today’s global ornamental horticulture trade compared to when the company began?

“There is a tremendous opportunity for growers in today’s global market, while at the same time, we face challenges that are more difficult than ever. The world needs and demands more plants and trees, and our industry is here to grow and supply them. We have never seen this amount of demand for our products – the recent pandemic accelerated this demand, and we believe that business will stay strong for years to come. At the same time, growers are faced with the need to be more sophisticated than ever. Global issues that are beyond our control can break us if we’re not managing properly – energy prices, labour shortages, pests are all major issues that need to be managed today better than ever before.”

Ball and burlap trees, at Brookdale Treeland Nurseries.

Ball and burlap trees at Brookdale Treeland Nurseries.

Can planting a trillion trees save the world?

“Planting a trillion trees can definitely help to save the world from the perils of climate change. We believe that any plan to fight climate change must include green infrastructure and reforestation as key pillars, carbon reduction, and fossil fuel’s eventual elimination.”

How significant is the social pressure on your business to produce more sustainably?

“We put that pressure on ourselves as we understand that what is good for the planet is good for business. Canada is behind Europe in legislating our industry into sustainable farming practices. We do have environmental farm plans for each of our locations which deals mostly with water usage and runoff. Internally, we have made the commitment to eliminate the use of all black plastic by 2025.”

In your opinion, does focusing on sustainability undermine or improve the financial results of a plant grower?

“In the short term, focusing on sustainability will cost more than it benefits us financially – this will turn around quickly as we work to be first to market on many initiatives that will turn from cost to benefit.”

Tell us about your global view on the challenges and opportunities for ornamental horticulture and Canada’s role in the international arena. What is the value of international collaboration?

“Canada continues to take a leading role in international horticulture, and we are proud of the work that we have done. Our national association (CNLA) is fully engaged and prepared to help lead the charge forward in letting the world know the benefits of our products. Our leaders understand how important it is to be at the table and a part of the global solution that our products provide for the world we live in.”

In which way does politics or global events influence the business – is Trudeau’s politics supportive, do the ripples of Covid still linger, or is Putin’s aggression in Ukraine affecting operations?

“We operate locally but are certainly not immune to the impact that global geopolitical events have on us. Everything that happens in the world affects us in one way or another – and we need to understand how to manage through these. The global pandemic was the biggest imminent challenge that we have faced in 100 years, and our industry managed well through this time. Governments responded in strong ways to ensure people stayed safe while at the same time having some extra money in their pockets. Today we deal with some of the long-lasting consequences of those decisions and need to manage through that.”

What do you do to prevent yourself from overreacting to external factors that you cannot control but affect the business?

“This is really difficult, but luckily, I am now over 50 and am able to put some perspective around things that are happening at the moment. I have tried to put life into perspective and take a long-term view on everything that happens in the business, even when we have to deal with the crisis of the day.”

Tell me about your background in horticulture. Your father began the business in 1977; where did you start in warehousing or production? Was it a natural succession? What was the path you took to get to where you are today?

“After graduating from the University of Guelph in Horticulture, I worked in Germany and Holland for a year. When I returned to Canada, I began as a grower in our production department, learning all about the plants we grow. After a couple of years, I moved into sales as a territory representative, ultimately becoming the Vice President of Sales by the time I was 30. From there, I was named President in 2004 at the age of 33 and bought the company in 2009. The succession was natural, and I pushed hard (maybe too hard) to do as much as I could as quickly as possible. This led to making some major mistakes that could have cost the business – especially during the great recession of 2008-2012. I guess I learned my lessons and found out that my best path forward was to build an amazing, professional team around me, and I feel that decision is what brought us to where we are today.”

(Jokingly) Would you hire yourself for your job knowing what you know now?

“Probably not!”

(Seriously) In a few words, can you characterise your life as the CEO of Brookdale Treeland Nurseries?

“My life as CEO is (next to my family) the most important thing in my life. I take pride in what I do every day and our little business’s impact on the lives of our staff, customers and the world.”

What would your staff say are your management style and the company tone?

“I think that our staff would say that we live our core values – Professionalism and Performance, Innovation, Partnership and Responsibility. We care about people, want them to succeed, and try to provide an atmosphere that allows them to do so. I am very collaborative in my approach and work hard to ensure that every person in our organisation feels that their contribution matters and makes a difference.”

Aside from winning IGOTY23, what for you has been the most satisfying moment in your organisation’s history?

“I would have to say that the day that I knew my team was complete and that I had built the group that I wanted to move forward with was my second most satisfying moment.”

BTN won the AIPH International Grower Of The Year 2023 crown at the glitzy award ceremony during IPM Essen.

BTN won the AIPH International Grower Of The Year 2023 crown at the glitzy award ceremony during IPM Essen.

The AIPH International Grower of the Year Awards celebrates the best of the best in ornamental horticulture. Are you part of a company active in the production of floricultural products? Then nominate your business today for IGOTY 2024. Read more about the Awards here.

This article was first published in the April 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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